Between Major League Baseball’s investigation into the Houston Astros for illegal sign stealing and the reported proposal to slash 42 minor-league teams, the offseason probably couldn’t have gotten off to a worse PR start for the sport.
And let’s not forget all the October controversy that overshadowed the postseason—the apparent deadening of the baseball following a record-setting regular season for home runs; the ESPN report that pitcher Tyler Skaggs, who had died of a fentanyl overdose in July, had bought drugs from a team media-relations staffer; the report from Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein before World Series Game 1 about former Astros assistant GM Brandon Taubman taunting female reporters about closer Roberto Osuna, who MLB had suspended for domestic violence, following Game 6 of the ALCS; the tone-deaf public relations fiasco from Houston that, among other blunders, attempted to discredit Apstein; umpire Rob Drake’s tweet about buying an AR-15 in preparation for a “civil war” amid President Trump’s impeachment proceedings. Somehow, the two other political debacles—Trump getting booed at Game 5 of the World Series in Washington; Kurt Suzuki wearing a MAGA hat and standing in as one-half of an awkward Titanic-like pose with the president during the Nationals’ post-championship trip to the White House—felt more like benign sideshows.
Shoot, even the labor negotiations and pending doom of a potential MLB lockout two years from now have been major bummers.
With all this madness, it’s understandable if the Braves’ hot start to free agency has fallen off the radar of many fans. Other than closer Will Smith, who signed for three years and $40 million, none of Atlanta’s six signings so far have been flashy. However, in addition to improving their chances in 2020, the Braves already have opened up the free-agent market after the previous two stagnant offseasons. That’s good for baseball, and it has the potential to further set the stove in motion.
Think of Atlanta’s activity this way: The Braves added the best free-agent reliever in Smith, and the second-best catcher, Travis d’Arnaud. They brought back four members of their 2019 roster that won the NL East—two other veteran bullpen arms, Chris Martin and Darren O’Day, steady right-fielder Nick Markakis and catcher Tyler Flowers. Those are six valuable players that make Atlanta better next season. Put another way, those six players are assets that the 29 other teams failed to get.
By signing all these free agents early in the offseason, more than two weeks before the Winter Meetings begin on Dec. 9, the Braves have put the other organizations in a tough spot.
All the teams in need of bullpen help (read: all but the Yankees), have to duke it out for guys like Dellin Betances, Will Harris and Daniel Hudson, among others, because Atlanta beat them out for Smith, Martin and O’Day. The teams looking to add a catcher (Astros, Brewers, Rays, Mets, Pirates) have fewer options than before the Braves signed d’Arnaud on Sunday for two years and $16 million. Sports Illustrated’s Ben Reiter ranked Smith first among relievers (14th overall) and d’Arnaud the No. 2 catcher (30th overall) on his list of top-50 free agents. (The top-ranked catcher, Yasmani Grandal, signed a four-year, $73 million deal with the White Sox on Thursday.)
Plus, the Braves are showing no signs of slowing down in their free-agent pursuits. They’ve been linked to starting pitcher Madison Bumgarner for a while now, and they’re also reportedly interested in Marcell Ozuna. Plenty of other teams are targeting both players, as well, and the Braves’ aggressive start this offseason could force the hand of other teams to get busy. It’s one thing to miss out on some second- and third-tier free agents while pursuing, and waiting for, the big-name guys. But it’s less excusable when one team, a club that won 97 games last year, keeps upgrading its roster while the other organizations remain idle.
And then there’s Josh Donaldson, who signed a one-year, $23 million deal with the Braves at this time last offseason. Again they are trying to sign Donaldson, but this time, other teams are interested. Atlanta doesn’t have the luxury of buying low on Donaldson like it did when he was coming off an injury-filled 2018. Other teams with larger payrolls can afford to splurge on Donaldson if they want him badly enough.
Complicating this, though, is Anthony Rendon, the best available third baseman who is coming off a World Series win and an MVP caliber season. He’s four years younger than Donaldson. He’s both the better player now and the safer long-term investment. Plus, Rendon is a Scott Boras client. There’s no reason to expect Rendon to sign quickly and plenty of cause to believe teams will wait for him.
But therein lies the predicament: In waiting for Rendon, Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg to sign before exploring the rest of the market, teams risk not getting them while also missing out on quality alternatives—Donaldson, Mike Moustakas, Bumgarner.
The Braves are winning the offseason because in just the first three-plus weeks of November, they’ve upgraded their roster and forced the other clubs to play catch-up. In doing so, they’ve ignited a winter of baseball that seemed destined to be a repeat of the last two. Hopefully.
If not, and top free agents remain unsigned into February and March, the third year of baseball’s Great Recession turns into yet another disappointing story in what’s already been a depressing start to the offseason.